Stop Confusing Wishful Thinking With Innovation

Since the beginning of the summer, colleges and universities all over the country have been spending millions of dollars trying to make campuses safe for their students to return. This choice has been at the expense of other opportunities, such as bringing back furloughed employees and investing in alternative teaching methods. The general hope has been to create an atmosphere of student learning that is as close as possible to what it was before the pandemic led to the great retreat this past spring. The official strategy has been to “recover lost ground and hold the line.” 

In order to ensure that the money spent was a wise investment, students have had to accept new rules of college-campus engagement: They must comply with mandated coronavirus tests or routine attestations that they are symptom-free. Everyone is required to wear a mask at all times in public spaces. Social distancing is a must. There can be no large gatherings and parties are prohibited.   

Yet after only a few weeks, with all the resources and effort spent to return to a martialized status quo ante, students have been forced once again to retreat. One by one, colleges and universities are scrambling back to online learning. Six months of preparation time wasted. 

Such is the cost of wishful thinking.   

Obvious wishful thinking occurs when someone simply says, “It’s going away. It’ll go away. Things go away. No question in my mind that it will go away.” This will never be confused with innovation. Wishful thinking is camouflaged as innovation when a plan seems to solve a problem but nevertheless leads those who follow it to a worse state of affairs because the plan’s assumptions are wildly optimistic. 

In the present case, that assumption is that students will comply with social distancing policies. There has been no evidence over the past six months that college-age students, or the American population at large, would consistently comply with the social distancing measures that higher education leaders demanded. Moreover, colleges and universities have no way of enforcing those measures to the degree necessary for their plans to work. The unrealistic basis for this misguided assumption is the reason for why even the best plans for returning to campus has led to such large failures so far.

Innovative thinking, on the other hand, recognizes the difference between process and goals. It also demands that leaders look at assets and liabilities in different ways. For example, innovative college and university leaders will not confuse the goal of higher education with how that education has been delivered in the past. By keeping the goal intact, they will be open to alternative ways to achieve it, and will try to find the best ways to deliver–and potentially improve–the school’s curriculum, given an accurate understanding of what is possible and what is not. They will not simply find ways to continue the same path, but rather will pivot on process to create a better product and experience. 

Yet colleges and universities do not only gain revenue from tuition, and this may be the real impetus for why higher education leaders have pushed students back to campus. Student housing, college athletics, food services and other amenities provide a large portion of college and university budgets. However, these offerings are not the mission of the school. They are ancillary services that help maintain the school’s margins so it can deliver on its mission. While “no margin, no mission” is a real fact of life, the need for margins should not blind leadership and cause them to sacrifice its mission. Nor should revenues from these ancillary services be obstacles for innovative thinking. 

For example, higher education leaders may perceive the revenue from student housing as too large to lose. Innovative leaders, however, would not see student housing as lost revenue. They would see those buildings as potential assets, on which the school could capitalize. These buildings–and the potential future revenue that they will produce–could become an investment opportunity for a real estate developer who specializes in apartments and multi-family properties. Facilitating a sale-leaseback, where the university sells its dormitories to a developer who then leases them back to the university through a long-term lease, would provide much needed cash in a time when revenue and institutional giving is down. This would allow the university to focus on its primary goal of providing the best education possible to students, giving it a competitive advantage without the distraction of running an ancillary service. Such a transaction would benefit the developer, who could achieve a desired internal rate of return that accounts for this year’s lackluster revenue. The arrangement would also benefit future students, since the dorms would be managed by a company whose primary job is student housing rather than it being a side gig.  

More colleges and universities will inevitably close in the coming weeks, yet the travesty in higher education is not the millions already wasted and the lack of preparation for the upcoming year. The travesty for higher education will be if higher education leaders do not see the current situation as a disruption that demands innovative thinking. Rather than trying to prop up castles made of sand, innovative leaders should look for more solid ground on which to build the future of higher education.

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